Feedback: the #1 mistake

“Work on your impact,” an executive recently told me, “because, right now, you’re not having any.”

We’d just met, so he wasn’t talking about me. He intended this feedback for an employee, but wanted to test it first.

“What do you mean by impact?” I asked.

“It means,” he said, “You need to collaborate more.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Speak up more at meetings,” the exec said.

Good—we’ve moved from general to specific.
Impact could be 1,000 things; collaborate, 100 things; talk more at meetings, 1 thing.

The exec could tell the employee, “You’re smart and your ideas are good, so I’m always hoping you’ll talk more at our meetings. What stops you?” Then, the two of them could discuss possible tactics.

How specific are you? The vaguer your feedback, the less helpful—and the more likely to be misinterpreted.

Let’s practice. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal story about a CEO who resigned abruptly. Which of these statements (from the WSJ, but out of sequence) describes the CEO’s specific behavior before resigning?

1) “He was too disengaged from the details of the operations.”

Not specific. What does disengaged mean? I imagine the CEO at a meeting:

Treasurer: We need to review last month’s financial results.

CEO: Do we have to? You know how much I hate that.

Treasurer: I don’t blame you, the numbers aren’t good . . .

CEO: Let’s talk about something else then.

Treasurer: Sales are down, profits have plummeted . . .

CEO: Too much sharing.

Treasurer: Our stock price is in free fall . . .


CEO: TMI. Please, make it stop!

2) “The 6-foot-5-inch former CEO has a fierce blue-eyed gaze and could be an intimidating and unrelenting presence.”

Well, his height and eye-color are specific—but neither describes behavior, and that’s a problem because feedback needs to be actionable.

I picture an executive coach advising the CEO:

Exec. coach: My main advice, sir: don’t stand up. Ever.

CEO: Why not?

Exec. coach: You’re way too tall.

CEO: But what if I have to go out somewhere?

Exec. coach: Going out would be good. And don’t hurry back. And take your unrelenting presence with you.

CEO: Anything else?

Exec. coach: Yes, stop looking at me. Your blue eyes are brutal.

3) “He made a side trip to Taiwan to check on the construction of his 110-foot yacht.”

Finally, some specific behavior. But too late for the CEO. A few weeks after the trip, his job was over (WSJ, “CEO Exit Followed Tension on Travel,” 12/6/14).

Tip: Want to make your feedback stick? Stick to specific behavior.

© Copyright 2014 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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